There’s a lot to like about Alabama Shakes, and that’s probably why they’ve been getting so much attention lately. I’m sure a lot of people are going to disagree with me and this review but I'm going to be honest, there’s one thing that keeps preventing me from enjoying Alabama Shakes, one thing that’s probably the main draw for most people. That thing is the vocals and lyrics of front-woman Brittany Howard.
Alabama Shakes debut full length album Boys & Girls out April 9th shows off a young blues oriented band. The band was started by Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell while still in high school. They have since gotten significant attention, appearing in a Zales commercial, making MTV’s 11 artists to watch in 2012, performing on Conan and signing to ATO Records. I tried to like Alabama Shakes, and on paper I should, I love blues, soul, and southern rock. Unfortunately I (and everyone I tried to listen to this album around) found Howard’s vocals abrasive, even annoying, and often her lyrics trite and derivative.
I hadn’t heard much of Alabama Shakes before going into this record, but I was expecting a muddy blues album and a singer who was trying to sound like Janis Joplin. Instead I felt a lot of the songs attempted more to impersonate singers like Ella Fitzgerald, or Aretha Franklin, with a blues rock edge and then perhaps a bit of Joplin. Unfortunately I didn’t find Howard’s lyrics or vocals to be up to these lofty comparisons they seem to invite. I often found her singing so screechy it induced headaches, and lyrics like “I ain’t the same no more, in fact I have changed from before” to do little to help. There also seems to be a lot of repitition in lyric and theme (I know “Bless my soul/heart/etc.” is repeated many times and in more than one song). I also noticed many of the songs seem to have very religious undertones, sometimes more overtly like in "Hold On" or "On Your Way" while other times like in "I Found You" it’s so subtle I’m not sure if it’s intentional or I’m reading to much into it because of the other tracks. Maybe it’s just a personal opinion but for the most part I like my rock & roll like my schools and government, with god kept separate. I don’t mind the occasional reference when appropriate but having so many seemingly faith inspired tracks is veering us dangerously close to Christian rock territory. The lyrics to "Goin’ To The Party" sound so much like a pop country song (and I don’t mean good country music, of which I’m also a fan) that I’m pretty sure I’ve already heard it before, a few times, but like this track everything's so cliched and derivative I don’t remember the songs.
Like I said though, I think a lot of people are going to disagree with me. If you find yourself on the pro Brittany Howard side of the debate there’s a lot to like about this album. The opening track starts the album with a very Skynyrd style southern rock attitude. Then the tracks seem to veer completely away from that. From crooning romance songs (That again, are along the lines of an Ella Fitzgerald), to the surf inspired "Hang Loose," to hard blues songs, and the country-esque, this album isn’t afraid to try new things. The band behind Howard is quite competent and switches genres without making the band seem unfocused or all over the place. Some of the lyrics seem written by a very young songwriter (and indeed they were) but there is a lot of skilled musicianship.
Give this album a try. You may end up with a migraine or you might fall in love with one of the hottest blues bands since The Black Keys.
1. Hold On
2. I Found You
3. Hang Lose
4. Rise To The Sun
5. You Ain’t Alone
6. Goin’ To The Party
8. Boys & Girls
9. Be Mine
10. I Ain’t The Same
11. On Your Way